1906 Letter Tells What Five In Family Saw
At Theatre April 14, 1865

By Bill Bleyer
(June 2012 Civil War News)

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Actress Jeannie Gourlay

On the night John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln 147 years ago, at least four relatives of Long Island resident Thomas Gourlay were in Ford’s Theatre — three of them cast members in “Our American Cousin.”

And actor and part-time stage manager Thomas C. Gourlay went home that night with a historically priceless but gory souvenir: a bloodstained flag from the president’s box.

While there are gaps in the historical record, assassination experts can confirm that four Gourlay family members were in the Washington, D.C., theater when Booth fired a bullet into Lincoln’s brain.

Thomas C. and daughters Jeannie and Margaret are listed in the playbill for April 14, 1865. Sir Edward Trenchard was played by Thomas C., Mary Trenchard by Jeannie and Skillet by Maggie. The handbill also notes that the next evening there a performance of “The Octoroon” would be done at the “Benefit of Miss Jennie [sic] Gourlay.” But the theater was closed after the assassination.

Great-grandson Thomas Gourlay knows Thomas Cameron Gourlay was an actor when he emigrated from Scotland in 1847 and settled in Brooklyn. He performed in Manhattan, toured the country, settled in San Francisco and then moved to Australia and finally Washington.

One historian can place Thomas C.’s teenage son, Thomas P., in the audience.

And family oral history and a 1906 letter from Thomas P. to his sister Jeannie say their younger brother, Robert, was with him in the audience and even saw Booth drinking in a bar next door during intermission. The experts say they have seen no other proof of Robert’s presence, but most of the 1,700 in the audience are unknown.

“It’s wonderful” to have his family so connected to such an important historical event, says Gourlay, 74, a retired New York City firefighter. “When we were kids there was always talk of it in the family.”

 As far as he knows, Thomas C., who died in 1885, never wrote about the assassination. But Thomas P.’s letter to Jeannie said, “most assuredly I was present in the orchestra of the theatre at the time of the occurrence and the affair is so impressed on [my] mind I distinctly remember the same as if it only happened yesterday.”

Gourlay writes that he, Robert and a friend took seats in the orchestra near the presidential box. “The curtain had risen and I believe the first scene was almost through before the president and friends arrived… The whole audience arose and turned to welcome him… The play continued.

“The president sat far back in his box where he could not be seen by the audience.… A pistol shot was heard, and immediately Wilkes Booth rushed to the edge of the box… where Major Rathburn [sic] was sitting [a guest in the box] with a large knife in his hand he slashed the Major in the arm, who was then unable to intercept Booth, who immediately dropped from the box .

“He dragged one of the flags to the stage, he stamped several times so as to disentangle his feet. He then rushed to the centre of the stage faced the audience and in a dramatic attitude flourished his knife over his head shouted sic semper tyrannis and then rushed off the stage on the side opposite from where the Presidents was.”

The letter states, “As soon as Booth had disappeared, Brother Robert, who knew Booth well, was one of the first to rise in his seat and shout its Booth its Booth.”

Robert said he and his brother “ran as fast as we could up to the Chief Quartermasters Department with the news and returned” to meet the other family members and go home with them and with [orchestra leader William] Withers. Arriving in their front parlor, Robert wrote they discovered “the clean-cut in Mr. Withers coat on his shoulder and clear through to his shirt, unintentionally received” from Booth’s knife.

He also writes that stagehand Edward Spangler, who was later charged as a conspirator for holding Booth’s horse, went to the Gourlay home that evening seeking refuge “and father would not admit him.” Robert had seen Booth with Spangler when he went to a saloon     during the intermission after the first act.

Thomas A. Bogar, assistant professor of theater history at Hood College in Frederick, Md., has been researching for almost a decade the stories of the 54 people who were backstage on April 14, 1865, for an upcoming book, Walking Shadows: The Forgotten Actors, Managers and Stagehands of Ford’s Theatre the Night of the Lincoln Assassination.

When Booth fired, “Jeannie was in the upstage right corner, just at the top of the stairs down to the tunnel, talking to Billy Withers, the conductor, whom she married within days of the assassination,” Bogar said. “Booth shoved her into a pile of scenery as he rushed past, also stabbing Withers.”

The couple moved to Memphis after the assassination and divorced in 1867. Sister Maggie, who died in childbirth in 1868, and her father were in the green room offstage right, Bogar said.

It is known that when Booth jumped from the box, one leg became tangled in the flag draped in front of the box and the assassin injured his leg when he landed. According to the Gourlay family version, that flag was folded and placed under Lincoln’s head. 

Edward Steers, author of The Lincoln Assassination Encyclopedia and other books on the subject, said when the doctors treating Lincoln asked for water, Laura Keene, the star of the show, grabbed a pitcher of water from the green room and asked Thomas C. to show her how to get to the presidential box. Gourlay led her outside to the alley and then up to the box.

After Keene cradled Lincoln’s head, the family story relates, Thomas C. helped carry Lincoln across the street to the Petersen House, where he died the next morning, with the flag still under his head and the actor retrieved the flag from there.

Historians say it is more likely that Gourlay remained behind at Ford’s Theatre and picked up the flag there.

Curiously, Thomas P.’s letter does not mention the flag, which his father must have obtained the night of the shooting because Steers said all of the flags were gone by the following morning, most returned by the Ford brothers to those who had lent them for the performance.

Historians say there is little doubt that Thomas C. did retrieve a flag from Lincoln’s box and later gave it to Jeannie, who had married Robert Struthers and settled in Milford, Pa. Her son, V. Paul Struthers, donated the flag to the Pike County Historical Society in Milford after Jeannie died in 1928.

The experts cast doubt on much of the remaining details.

Edward Steers says Gourlay probably took a spare flag not on display. Five flags, probably all silk, were displayed around the box and Gourlay took a wool flag. “If the Thomas Gourlay flag was in the box, it was folded up, laying on the floor in the corner,” he says.

Michael W. Kauffman, author of American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth And The Lincoln Conspiracies, says of the Gourlay flag, “I’m quite sure that the blood was that of Henry Rathbone, who … was stabbed and badly wounded in the attack.” He says there’s no evidence the flag had been placed under Lincoln’s head.

Rae Emerson, the National Park Service site manager at Ford’s Theatre, says, “As far as we know, it was actually soldiers who carried the body.”

  After being told what the experts had to say, Thomas Gourlay says he is pleased that much of the family’s account had been verified.